This fall, we’re talking to student entrepreneurs: publishing interviews with current students (like the Optivolt Labs founders and the Runnera founders), collecting great advice from student entrepreneurs for student entrepreneurs, and generally finding out what makes the student founder experience unique.
Why is this important? Because we believe that education and entrepreneurship can be a great combo, and that student entrepreneurs do amazing things.
We want to encourage anyone interested in entrepreneurship to give it a go, and college or grad school are a great time to do this, when there’s tons of support and the risk is less.
Interested in getting involved in entrepreneurship, but don’t know where to start? Techstars Global Startup Weekend is taking place all over the world this November! It’s a great way to get a taste of entrepreneurship.
The Origins of a Student Entrepreneur
Some student entrepreneurs arrive on campus knowing that they want to start a company. Jeff Zhou, founder of Fig (Techstars Class 69 at Techstars Seattle) arrived at his MBA program at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania with the intention of founding a startup. Before Wharton, he had been working in consulting, and he grew frustrated when clients didn’t take his team’s advice. He envisioned a company where “my team would be free to implement all of the best practices we often preached to clients. That was when I knew I wanted to (try and) start a business.” He met his cofounder at Wharton, and today Fig is still in the payday loans business — helping people rebuild their credit.
Others begin by solving their own problems, and then find that lots of people want those solutions, too. Relovv founder Alex Shadrow (Techstars Class 139 at Techstars Los Angeles) is still working on her college startup, which she founded as a Boston University undergrad. Originally BUtique, the company sold Alex’s own non-luxury clothes, and shortly “two out of three BU girls were buying from my closet and starting to sell their own things, too.” Women at other colleges wanted in, and Alex soon reached 600 campuses and 30,000 members (then as UNItiques). She was excited to realize that there was “a market beyond college for a new, sustainable way to buy and sell fashion.”
Then there are the student founders who discover entrepreneurship on campus: Fletcher Richman, founder of BubbleIQ (Techstars Class 122 at Techstars Boulder) went to University of Colorado Boulder to “ski and learn engineering,” as he puts it. “I didn’t even know that entrepreneurship was a career path option,” Fletcher says. “I started three companies while in school, several different student clubs, and TEDxCU. Now I’m completely addicted to the tech startup scene.”
A Series of Quick Failures
Brutal honesty: after talking to a lot of current and former student entrepreneurs, one of our findings is that most of the companies started by student founders fail. However, that’s not surprising, given that 90% of all startups fail. What is interesting is that none of the founders we talked to had any regrets, despite the hard lessons. In fact, it was the hard lessons that they appreciated the most — and that they took into their next venture.
“I would do most of the things the same!” says Fletcher. “Definitely a few things I did wrong but those learnings were so valuable that I wouldn’t want to remove the mistakes.”
Ordermark founder Alex Canter (Techstars Class 122 at Techstars Boulder) is another serial student entrepreneur: “During my four years of undergrad at University of Wisconsin-Madison, I attempted to start multiple companies,” he says. “I was always interested in entrepreneurship, but was unaware of how much of a struggle it was to get something off the ground. It was basically a series of quick failures.”
While founders like Jeff and Alex Shadrow hit on winning ventures while at school, this often comes after a few failures — or they graduate only to find that the biggest challenges lie ahead. Alex Shadrow graduated as a full-time CEO of her fashion resale company, but quickly realized that she “needed a bigger team and some capital” plus “an update in UI/UX.”
A Wealth of Resources
Student founders benefit hugely from the entrepreneurial resources available at many universities today. These resources, from seed awards to free legal services to helpful professors to classes where you work on your startup, may be the best argument for trying out entrepreneurship at school.
“My freshman year, I lived in an entrepreneurial learning community, which was basically an entire floor of a dorm dedicated to business-minded students,” Alex Canter says of his time at UW-Madison. “In addition to studying Economics, I also got a certificate in Entrepreneurship, which consisted of my favorite classes during my 4 years. Our campus had a Law and Entrepreneurship program, that offered free legal services to student entrepreneurs that were trying to start companies with no capital. It was an incredible learning experience.”
Alex Shadrow describes a similar experience at BU: “I found mentors in business professors; I found office space in our BUild Lab; I found support at every turn.”
As for Wharton, Jeff says, “The school helped us with working space, mentorship programs, and competitions. More fundamentally, the classes at our school were specifically tailored to tactically help students start companies. We took classes like Digital Marketing, Enabling Technologies, and Venture Implementation where the coursework and timing all supported our stage of company. These classes not only exposed us to best practices but also turned starting our company into classwork, allowing us to get the most out of every hour!”
There’s so much going on at many universities that it can be easy to miss resources unless you’re looking for them. See if your school has entrepreneurship classes, clubs, or programs — there may be more than you realized!
Over and over, time management is the biggest challenge that student entrepreneurs cite. The difficulty of managing coursework while starting a company is real — especially if you want to also do anything else, ever.
However, there is an upside to this: “Time management was both a benefit and a drawback,” says Alex Shadrow. “It was hard to balance class and school, but it taught me how to balance many moving pieces out of college and as we scaled.”
Once an Entrepreneur, Always an Entrepreneur
One thing these student entrepreneurs have in common — and this is true of nearly every student entrepreneur we talked to — they didn’t wait til they got to college to get started.
“I’ve been selling things since I could speak,” says Alex Shadrow. “Selling candy, lemonade, and eventually making cold calls at a metal recycling company. I learned the importance of messaging and how to motivate someone to be your customer.”
Alex Canter remembers, “I started a very young age. I used to make album-cover art pins and sell them at Venice beach and to local businesses around Los Angeles. There was one summer in high school that I started selling women’s hair-color products on Ebay. I think I made over $3,000, $15 at a time.”
“I used to sell lemonade at a stand in Aspen for $5/cup.” Fletcher says. “I knew my audience :). Learned about pricing and how to hustle.”
“I had two businesses in middle school,” says Jeff. “These businesses taught me how much work is required to turn one-time success into a repeatable and enduring business. There’s still a stack of 50 t-shirts in my parent’s basement that I have yet to sell!”
We can’t help but wonder how many other parents of entrepreneurs have a similar stack of unsold t-shirts lingering somewhere…
But if that’s the price of raising a hard-working, energetic young person who believes that they can change the world, it seems pretty affordable to us.